From Weight Loss to Maintenance: How to Navigate a Tricky Transition
One of the health myths that annoys me most is this one:
“It’s easy to lose ____ pounds, but it’s harder to keep it off.”
Have you heard this one before? Phrases like this, as well as oft-cited studies about weight re-gain after loss, make it seem like failure is inevitable. The overall message comes across to would-be self-improvers as, “Why even try?”
I think this message, without context, is not only discouraging, but also terribly misleading.
Statistics like these don’t take into account long, steady lifestyle change. Instead, they focus on quick-fix crash diets that last – at most – a few months. They don’t consider the kind of tectonic change that people undergo when they develop new exercise habits, systemically change the way they eat, and do serious work on their mindset around weight and body image.
If you have made significant inroads in improving your body composition with slow, steady progress, you may be at a point where you’re asking yourself, “What’s next?”
You may even be wondering, “Am I doomed to re-gain?”
The good news is that the future is bright. If you have been gradually transforming your lifestyle right along with your body, your chances are very, very good that you’ll keep the weight off without heroics or extreme deprivation.
But you may not be sure what to do. You may be asking yourself practical questions, like:
- “Can I eat more than I used to, or do I have to keep eating the same calorie number that I was when dieting?”
- “I’m going on vacation – am I free to let loose now that I’m not actively losing weight?”
- “Have I damaged my metabolism through long-term weight loss?”
- “Do I have to keep exercising daily?”
That’s what today’s blog post is all about.
Let’s talk maintenance. Today, I’m going to break down five important concepts of maintenance that will help you make a smooth, pain-free transition from steady weight loss to easy maintenance.
Concept 1: Keep your exercise going full steam ahead.
Many people over-associate exercise with weight loss.
As in: “I will exercise to lose weight, but I won’t exercise if I’m not actively trying to lose weight. I’ll only jump on the treadmill if I see my weight start to creep up.”
Instead, I invite you to frame exercise as something that will remain a constant companion – something that makes your life better, more fun, and easier. Create a way to keep yourself accountable, find something you enjoy, and set goals to achieve so that you exercise most days of the week.
The National Weight Loss Control Registry, which researches people (including me!) who have successfully lost weight and kept it off, has found that most successful “losers” exercise about an hour a day.
For me, this tracks. I strength train three times a week, I run two or three times a week, and I go for a walk at least once a day.
Keep in mind that exercising an hour per day does not mean slogging it out on the treadmill for 60 minutes every night. It can look a lot of different ways – you can find something that fits your personality, preferences, and schedule!
Concept 2: Plan a bit more food into your diet… strategically.
When you’re losing weight, you’re in a caloric deficit. This means you’re burning more calories than you eat, so your body has to dig into stored fat for energy. This causes the pounds to drop as you gradually mobilize more and more stored fat.
Maintenance happens when you eat just enough to not lose weight. Your body can simply use the incoming food to fuel activity, instead of digging into stored energy.
But this is where many people on a weight loss journey get this confused – they mistakenly think that maintenance will be going back to their “old normal” (prior to how they ate to lose weight).
This is what causes re-gain.
Instead, you need to embrace that you have a “new normal.” Simply put, the amount of food that you can eat to maintain your weight will be more than what you were eating when you were dieting, but it will be less than what you used to eat.
My practical advice is to keep your “diet” plan consistent – keep eating the same way you were when you were actively losing weight. But just plump up a few meals and snacks with a few extra calories here and there – have that extra spoonful of peanut butter or 1/2 cup of rice, for example. If you had to eat 1300 calories to lose weight, for example, you’ll likely be able to eat anywhere from 1500-1800 without weight re-gain, assuming you maintain the consistency and intensity of your exercise.
Then, it’s an experiment. If you start to consistently re-gain weight, then you probably over-shot it back into a surplus and need to shave off one of the extras you added back in. If you maintain your weight, you’re right on track. If you consistently lose weight, you’re still in a deficit and need to add in a few more calories. It takes time to figure out your “new normal” – stick with it and you’ll come out successful on the other side.
Concept 3: Continue to watch your weight.
Over time, my professional recommendations about the scale have gradually changed. When I first began my personal training work, I was of the “never weigh yourself” school of thought. I assumed that changes in clothing fit would be enough to help people keep track of small shifts in weight.
For years now, however, I have been a proponent of weekly, bi-weekly, or daily weighing – whatever is a good fit for a client.* This is because over time, I have learned that pounds on the scale can catch up quickly with someone (especially in the age of spandex), and the adage holds true that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Once you’re in maintenance mode, I highly recommend that you weigh yourself semi-regularly to catch trends in weight that are beyond normal fluctuation (within five pounds or so). It’s easier to course-correct a five-pound weight gain, for example, than it is a 20-pound weight gain.
The National Weight Control Registry backs this up, finding that 75% of their successful “losers” weigh themselves at least once a week.
This is what Gretchen Rubin would call “The Strategy of Monitoring.” As she says on her website, “Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. It doesn’t require change, but it often leads to change, because people who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it.”
Ironically, people often avoid weighing themselves at times when it would help the most. This study from Obesity shows how effective it can be to monitor your weight during the holidays, for example. Participants in the study were told that the goal was to maintain their weight over the holidays, but weren’t given any specific instructions on how to do so. However, roughly half of the group was given instructions to weigh themselves daily, and they could see a graphical representation of their weight each time they did so.
As you can probably guess, the people who weighed themselves daily maintained or even lost weight, whereas the control group who were not told to weigh themselves gained weight over the holidays.
I often see this pattern in my clients – taking a break from the scale during times when it would be most helpful to stay attentive. For maintenance, my advice is to stay on top of your weight with at least a weekly check, to make sure that things aren’t trending in a direction you don’t want.
By the way, the kind of course-corrections that work are usually very small shifts, rather than dramatic overhauls. Don’t worry that weighing yourself over the holidays means you’re going to have to miss out on a favorite treat or deprive yourself.
On a practical level, I always advise using the app Happy Scale for my weight loss clients. It gives you the graphical representation of your progress, and you can also set it so that you always see your moving average instead of your daily weight. This helps to smooth out natural fluctuation so that you see trends instead of spikes.
*I would also define weighing as being a “good fit” for an individual if they do not struggle with an eating disorder, disordered eating, or severe body image issues.
Concept 4: Remember that the same tools will always work.
For many people who have lost weight, it’s easy to relax back into old habits. It often happens gradually – a few more meals out here, a few less workouts there, and you suddenly panic when your jeans don’t zip up as easy as they used to.
Take a deep breath. Relax.
The good news is that whatever you did to reach your goal weight will still work (albeit with some modifications sometimes!).
Often, all it takes is some old-fashioned tracking and self-honesty.
For a week or two, use monitoring and tracking to answer questions like:
- How many total minutes did you exercise in one week?
- How many calories did you take in per day?
- How often are you eating out?
- How is your consumption of lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains?
- How many treats are you having (or how many “exceptions” are you making) per week?
You can also expand this line of questioning to ideas like, “What’s going on in your life?”
Are you extra busy? Stressed? Are the seasons changing? Your standards that you maintained while you were losing weight may have relaxed a little without your full intent or comprehension – even a change in temperature can cause daily patterns to change.
By being observant of your habits and shifting daily patterns where needed, you’ll be surprised to find that results show up just as easily as ever.
… But what if you just can’t muster the motivation?
Concept 5: Tackle fresh goals.
Sometimes, the extended experience of slow and steady weight loss can create a kind of mental burn-out.
It’s often disappointing that – once you lose weight – you have to maintain some level of focus and work to keep it off. Wouldn’t it be much more fair if the weight just stayed off after all your hard work?
But as someone who has lost 50 pounds myself, I know this is wishful thinking – and the kind of thinking that leads to re-gain.
Unfortunately, some people find it hard to get back in the right headspace for weight maintenance once they’ve lost weight.
They’re just over it by that point.
So how do you muster the motivation to keep going?
I highly recommend refreshing your goals every 3-6 months, even if you’re still on the weight loss journey and haven’t reached your goal yet. This helps to keep burnout at bay and keep life interesting! It’s important that these goals support weight loss or maintenance, but aren’t exclusively focused on it.
For example, if you’ve been focusing diligently on losing weight for three months and have successfully lost 10-15 pounds, I think it’s time to train for a 5K or learn how to do a pull-up. Similarly, you could switch up your approach to nutrition by trying new recipes or making a dietary switch for which the writing has been on the wall (i.e. you’ve known for awhile that you need to cut out dairy).
These small changes can breathe fresh air into a dead routine, giving you the motivation you need to keep trends moving in the right direction.
Do you need fresh ideas? Drop me a line to set up a free consultation! I can help you navigate a tricky transition or set new goals.